Two dead men stood at the edge of the camp, watching the work. The Orcs assumed they belonged and paid them no mind, and the one single abomination that now patrolled in a confused circle seemed to do likewise.
One was much taller than the other, and tiny lights circled his white eyes. The shorter man still held a hood clenched in one hand, because after he tore it off he had not thought to drop it. Both were still in some considerable pain, but its impact was growing less.
They had last awakened to find themselves in the midst of complete confusion, rotten flesh raining down from the sky, and they had done the only logical thing under the circumstances. Their flight had been limited by their chains, but a few zombies who were trying to tear them to shreds had managed to get those off, and after that...
Neither was quite sure what had happened after that. Anyway, the zombies seemed to be gone now. They did not know quite what to do, now that the fear and the pain were not in the forefront of their minds. Neither had a strong will to self-annihilation, for the zombies had quickly cured them of any such impulse. Neither had any desire to keep running into the strange and barren land around them.
In fact, both of them were wondering what to do when the acolyte Variel Slowburn glided imperiously up to them both and demanded,
"Why are you just standing there? Go... Go carry rocks or something!"
The two dead men looked at each other, and at the small Human in the tattered robe. Then they turned and went to help the ghouls haul rocks.
In the end, it doesn't matter if you're alive or if you're dead, or what you look like, or even how you smell. What matters is that you belong.
Work went on. Dev Blackstare managed to wangle her way onto a patrol, and started her circuit of the camp environs with some relief. She hated the insides of caves, she decided, almost as much as she hated warlocks. In fact, male Orcs in general were starting to really annoy -
A massive gray arm shot out in front of her at chest level, knocking her straight backwards. She hit the ground on her back with an oof. Dev rolled to her feet, shaking her head as she tried to reinflate her lungs. Daysleeper stood a yard or so away, watching with tolerant amusement.
"Okay," she growled, drawing her scimitar. "Whoever that was, you'd better start running, 'cause otherwise you have about five seconds to live."
"Sorry, Blackstare. Always been a lousy runner," said a voice. She turned to see a stocky grunt standing beside the dirt track. He'd already doffed his shoulder armor, revealing the long scar on his left bicep. As she watched, he carefully removed his helmet, shaking out his short braid.
"Gibad Fallsharder?" Dev said. She got slowly to her feet, looking the grunt up and down. "You serious?"
"As I ever was," Fallsharder said.
Dev surveyed him narrowly. "You don't even know me," she said.
The grunt shrugged his powerful shoulders. "You can fight. You can scout. You can talk to harpies and Undeads. Mebbe I don't stack up to that too well, but I figured it was worth a try."
Dev considered him for a moment. She didn't know Fallsharder, but she knew about him. If there was anything raiders loved to talk about, it was grunts. Steady. Honest. Strong.
"I hear you never took anybody from the Clan," she said. "And some of them were more than willing."
"Yeah," Fallsharder said. "But none of 'em was the right one."
"And I am."
"Yeah," said Fallsharder firmly.
"So why right now?"
"Weird times we're in," the grunt said. "Moving in with the dead. Fighting with Humans. And, for all we know, we could have the Horde down on our backs before the spring rain. Time like that, anything could happen, so I figured I better not wait."
"So you've been planning this," Dev realized. "For how long?"
"Oh, months," said Fallsharder. "But then Redback started talking and I figured I better wait. I wouldn't want an Orc who'd want Redback."
"Yeah, me neither," said Dev. Fallsharder snorted.
"So whaddaya say, Dev Blackstare? You gonna cut me, or you gonna hit back?"
Dev sheathed the scimitar. "What the Nether," she said. "Let's give it a try."
Then she punched him in the head.
"So that's why you kept disappearing when Redmorning was around," Skrch said. "You weren't a deserter. You were a spy."
"I am afraid so," said Eyrilus. He stood on the cliff beside her, now in his Elf form. The krrrahk had gotten bored and wandered off to play, and they were essentially alone. "But I have given my last report. I will never return to Ashenvale."
"And how am I supposed to believe you?" Skrch said. "You were a liar before. How do I know you're not now?"
Eyrilus looked down at the camp. "You cannot," he said. "Over time, I hope to prove it to you. All I dare ask is that you give me the opportunity to do so."
"And what about that thing with that other queen?" Skrch said. "If me killing things is going to be a problem, you might as well take off right now, 'cause I'm going to have to sooner or later. I'm a harpy. It's what we do."
"I understand that," Eyrilus said. "I have always understood it. But... Why did you tear her heart out?"
"Respect," Skrch said.
The Elf turned to look down at her. "What?"
"Respect. She was a queen, and so am I. If I'd left it, it would've been like saying she didn't matter. Like she was too weak to bother making sure she was dead," Skrch said. "I thought everybody knew that."
"No," Eyrilus said. "I did not. Elves do not mutilate their dead enemies. It is a desecration."
"One too many big Elvish words there," Skrch said.
"Never mind. In any case, I believe I understand now. I was too quick to judge."
"Elves are like that," Skrch said. "Or there wouldn't be harpies to begin with. Wanna fly around for a while?"
"Yes," said Eyrilus.
Skrch took off. A moment later, the giant crow glided up beside her, catching the backdraft from her red wings. Below them, the krrrahk were playing tag with the ghouls again, dashing in and out on the ground among the bustle of the new settlement being built. Once in a while one of them would speak to a passing Orc. Not a single one tried to kill one of her sisters, or anyone else.
"It's a pretty good start, anyhow," said Skrch.
"Jhha," said Eyrilus, in very passable Saark. "It is."
As the night began to fall, Felwyn Smallfinger stood on the roof of a brand new Temple of the Damned. The stench of corruption was a little less, and a wind was beginning to spring up, bringing with it the distant smell of rain. Lrfk shifted from foot to foot on the staff.
"The wind is changing," said Mir'noj.
"Yes," said Felwyn. And the necromancer stood with life at one hand and death at the other, and she said:
There is more to the grave than an ending
There is more to the battle than strife
And what rises from chaos and death and the storm
Is the red-feathered phoenix called Life.
Whew! This was a fun project, but it went on far longer than I originally planned. This is an important lesson in the difficulty of keeping a story short when the cast is so large.
This marks the end of the Unlikely Heroes stories. If any of you wonderful Warcraft folks get into The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, you may next expect to find me writing in that category. (Since it's not a category yet, I may even be the first one.)
Thanks for all the reviews, and thank you once again for being such a great reading audience.